In the interest of expediency, here are some excerpts from the Lonely Planet - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania chapter on Lithuania:
Vilnius (vil-nyus), the baroque beauty of the Baltic, is a city of immense allure. As stunning as it is bizarre, it easily tops the country’s best-attraction bill, drawing tourists like moths to a flame with an easy, confident charm and a warm, golden glow that makes one wish for long midsummer evenings every day of the year.
The capital may be a long way north and east, but it’s quintessentially continental.
At its heart is Europe’s largest baroque old town, so precious that Unesco added it to its World Heritage list. Viewed from a hot air balloon, the skyline – pierced by countless Orthodox and Catholic Church steeples – looks like a giant bed of nails. Adding to this heady mix is a combination of cobbled alleys, crumbling corners, majestic hilltop views, breakaway states and traditional artists’ workshops – all in a city so small you’d sometimes think it was a village.
It has not always been good and grand here though. There are reminders of loss and pain too, from the horror of the KGB’s torture cells to the ghetto in the centre of all this beauty where the Jewish community lived before their mass wartime slaughter. Yet the spirit of freedom and resistance has prevailed, and the city is forging a new identity, combining the past with a present and future that involves world cuisine, a burgeoning nightlife and shiny new skyscrapers.
Legend says Vilnius was founded in the 1320s, when Lithuanian grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf that howled with the voices of 100 wolves – a sure sign to build a city as mighty as their cry. In fact, the site had already been settled for 1000 years.
A moat, a wall and a tower on Gediminas Hill protected 14th and 15th -century Vilnius from Teutonic attacks. Tatar attacks prompted inhabitants to build a 2.4km defensive wall (1503–22), and by the end of the 16th century Vilnius was among Eastern Europe’s biggest cities.
Three centuries on, industrialization arrived: railways were laid and Vilnius became a key Jewish city. Occupied by Germany during WWI, it became an isolated pocket of Poland afterwards. WWII ushered in another German occupation and the death knoll for its Jewish population.
After the war, Vilnius’ skyline was filled with new residential suburbs populated by Lithuanians from other parts of the country alongside immigrant Russians and Belarusians. In the late 1980s, the capital was the focus of Lithuania’s push for independence from the USSR.
Vilnius has fast become a European city. In 1994 its Old Town became a Unesco World Heritage site and 15 years later shared the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture with the Austrian city Linz. In between, much of the Old Town has been restored and is now a tourist hot spot.
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